He would not have succeeded here

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Paul Nurse

By Zach Isaiah Chia

Paul NursePaul Nurse had a happy childhood.

But behind the loving family environment was a dark secret that was kept from him and everyone else, a dark secret that Nurse was to discover at the age of 61. Beyond the facade of clarity is a tangled web of familial relations. Ironically, for a man who studies genes, Nurse still does not know who his father is. While applying for American citizenship, Nurse discovered that his older sister was his biological mother and his mother was his biological grandmother. If that was not confusing enough, the two brothers he grew up with become uncles overnight. Even more bewildering, his biological mother ended up getting married and having another three children legitimately never recognising at any time.

There would be even more twists and turns to his life.

The search for truth would consume his life, and the simple pursuit of truth would set him on the path to success.

His knightly quest for truth illuminated how living beings grow and reproduce. It also irradiated important knowledge on cancer. For this, he would be given greater responsibilities in public life.

Nurse is the current President of the Royal Society in UK, President Emeritus of the world-famous Rockefeller University, and first Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute (formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation). He was jointly-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his discovery of the role of cycline dependent kinases in the cell cycle. Before that he had won the Albert Lasker Award for basic research in 1998. He was knighted in 1999.

Sir Paul is currently in Singapore to receive the Albert Einstein World Award of Science from the World Cultural Council. The annual event is being held for the first time in Singapore, at the Nanyang Technological University. The high-powered committee, including 25 Nobel Laureates, selects scientists, artists and educators who have contributed positively to the cultural enrichment of mankind.

Nurse had a humble academic background. He completed his bacheror’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Birmingham and then did his PhD at the University of East Anglia, both relatively unfashionable universities. He proceeded to do most of his postdoctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, where he made his name. His work at Edinburgh was on yeast, career considerations incited him to look for the same process in humans.

All this would not have been possible if his tenacity was stifled by rigidity. Nurse was rejected from every University he applied because he did not study a second language. Undeterred, he began work as a lab technician and then convinced the administration at the University of Birmingham to accept him into their baccalaureate degree course. He was not a ‘good student’, he was a rebel. Nurse was a student activist. During his time as an undergraduate, Nurse was an open and active supporter of the Socialist Party, helping to sell party broadsheets on campus. He was also part of a sit-in in the Chancellors office as part of a student protest.

The occasion of him receiving the award in Singapore, presents a picture of contrast – a man who succeeded because of slithers of flexibility receiving an award in a city renowned for firm inflexibility. Would someone like Sir Paul have succeeded in Singapore?

The Singapore system is a practical one of averages, it does not reward people who are exceptional (way beyond even the Gifted Education Program) and it penalizes those who are unconventional. The study of ‘soft’ subjects tends to be frowned upon. The slow death of literature and the drop in humanities enrolment are good examples.

Rigidity affects whether students will be accepted or not. With the exception of Mohammad Haikai Abdul Zainal, who was considered for medical school admission at 13 the list of non-conventional acceptances looks bare. Child prodigy Aidan Cawley was rejected from local universities despite acing his GCSE O’levels at 10 years old because he was too young and did not have GCSE A level’s results. Late bloomer Lim Wah Guan was rejected from NUS four times before being accepted in the University of New South Wales, Oxford and Princeton, where he is currently working on his PhD in East Asia Studies. Rebels like Alfian Sa’at are frowned upon because they are considered too subversive for the local culture. Even SMU which used to pride itself on accepting non-traditional students has begun to conform and take in students purely by exam results.

For a country that wants to take the next step into the brave new world of developed economies where creativity and ability matter more than technical skill, has our education system moulded the future of our nation too well, forcing all her square pegs to fit into the round holes.

Would Singapore universities have accepted a candidate like Nurse? Would a rebel have been able to thrive in a local university? Would Singapore-based scientists have been able to investigate non-applied research for simple scientific curiosity?